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Authors: David K. Shipler

The Working Poor

BOOK: The Working Poor
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Acclaim for David K. Shipler’s

Winner of the Myers Outstanding Book Award

Chosen as a Best Book of the Year by the
San Francisco
Chronicle, The Washington Post Book World,
San Jose Mercury News

“Sprawling, compassionate.… Describes with clear-eyed sympathy the individuals and families who sustain the seemingly limitless appetite for low-wage work and should provide ammunition to policy makers—if there are any—who wish to seriously engage the project of eliminating poverty in America.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

“In the tradition of Michael Harrington, Edward R. Murrow and more recently Barbara Ehrenreich as it seeks to alert a complacent nation about the misery and deprivation in its midst…. By exposing the wretched condition of these invisible Americans, he has performed a noble and badly needed service.”

—The New York Times

“Powerful.… Some may find in this eye-opening book reason to demand change. Others, with regret perhaps, will see it as an accurate description of the inevitable costs of free market capitalism.”

—Los Angeles Times

“Moving and meticulous.… Unlike other sympathetic chroniclers of the working poor, he doesn’t demonize their employers.”

—The Baltimore Sun

“Masterly… a series of memorable portraits.”

—The Hartford Courant

“This urgent new book obliterates the notion that impoverished people are simply lazy…. Shipler is a skilled interviewer whose knack for erasing himself from the picture lends this book anintimate quality.”

—Time Out New: York

“Shipler’s report is gripping, his characters more alive than those found in many novels.”

—Austin American-Statesman

“Splendidly animated by Shipler’s empathy—his ability to see people and more important to depict them, not as statistics or symbols of injustice, but as human beings.”

—The Miami Herald

The Working Poor
will make any relatively well-off reader look at the struggles of the poor differently.… [It] deserves a place on the American bookshelf next to Barbara Ehrenreich’s
Nickel and Dimed

—The Boston Globe

“Shipler steers clear of diatribes, looking at human frailty and a spectrum of bosses and social services. With moving under statement, he develops a compassionate picture of the working poor.”

—The Star-Ledger (Newark)

“A work of stunning scope and clarity.… He brings the reader close enough to the challenges faced every day by his workers to make them feel it when the floor inevitably drops out beneath them.”

—The Buffalo News

“The scope and importance of David Shipler’s
The Working Poor
brings to mind Upton Sinclair’s
The Jungle

—Deseret News (Salt Lake City)

“A powerful exposé that builds from page to page, from one grim revelation to another, until you have no choice but to leap out of your armchair and strike a blow for economic justice.”

—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

“There is no better book on poverty in America than
The Working Poor
because it describes in vivid detail the sort of day to day problems and the cycles that these folks are involved in … really thought-provoking in a very important way.”

—Senator John Edwards

David K. Shipler


David K. Shipler worked for
The New York Times
from 1966 to 1988, reporting from New York, Saigon, Moscow, and Jerusalem before serving as chief diplomatic correspondent in Washington, D.C. He has also written for
The New Yorker, The Washington Post,
and the
Los Angeles Times.
He is the author of three other books—
Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams;
the Pulitzer Prize-winning
Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land;
A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America.
Mr. Shipler, who has been a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has taught at Princeton University, at American University in Washington, D.C, and at Dartmouth College. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America


Author’s Note

Most significant statistics have been updated in this edition. They show the basic landscape of poverty essentially unchanged, except that the contours of hardship have grown slightly more pronounced. Greater disparities of net worth separate the wealthiest and the poorest families, larger gaps in resources divide affluent school districts from others, more children miss school because of asthma, more Americans go without health insurance, more experience hunger, more are imprisoned, fewer workers are unionized, more illegal immigrants do essential jobs, and more of them die in the desert after crossing the border from Mexico.

Congress and many state legislatures have raised minimum wages, but they still leave most single-earner families below the poverty line. Astonishing percentages of adults who have been surveyed remain unable to perform everyday tasks in reading, math, and document comprehension, rendering them uncompetitive in a global marketplace. The subprime lending phenomenon, which began by exploiting low-income households, has reached into the middle class and jeopardized the entire web of financial markets, demonstrating that the ailments of the poor and the nearly poor cannot be quarantined. There is no refuge. There are only remedies.


May 2012


Most of the people I write about in this book do not have the luxury of rage. They are caught in exhausting struggles. Their wages do not lift them far enough from poverty to improve their lives, and their lives, in turn, hold them back. The term by which they are usually described, “working poor,” should be an oxymoron. Nobody who works hard should be poor in America.

In 1997, as the country’s prosperity soared, I set out to find working people who had been left behind. I found them in black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and white towns in New Hampshire, in factories and job-training centers in Cleveland and Chicago, in housing projects in Akron and Los Angeles, in malnutrition clinics in Boston and Baltimore, in California sweatshops, and in North Carolina fields.

My purpose was to look into their lives as thoroughly as they would allow, to unravel the tangled strands of cause and effect that led to their
individual predicaments. Some I encountered only once or twice, but others I have followed for five or six years into the present, checking with them again and again as the economic boom has collapsed and recession has set in, as they have gone through promotions and bankruptcies, marriage and divorce, childbirth and death in the family.

The rising and falling fortunes of the nation’s economy have not had much impact on these folks. They suffer in good times and bad. Some, caught in paralyzing depression, feel resigned, helpless, and defeated. They are “tired of wishes, empty of dreams,” in Carl Sandburg’s phrase. Others, however, are proudly driven by their dreams and determination, by belief in the power of work. Rarely are they infuriated by their conditions, and when their anger surfaces, it is often misdirected against their spouses, their children, or their co-workers. They do not usually blame their bosses, their government, their country, or the hierarchy of wealth, as they reasonably could. They often blame themselves, and they are sometimes right to do so.

To spend years doing a dozen, fifteen, twenty, or more inter views with people, you’ve got to like them. So I am rooting for them, no doubt. But I have tried to see with clear eyes, not through an ideological lens. Indeed, devout conservatives and impassioned liberals will be bothered by this portrait of poverty, at least I hope so, for the reality I discovered does not fit neatly into anyone’s political agenda. I want to challenge and undermine longstanding assumptions at both ends of the spectrum.

The subject is deeply emotional, reaching to the heart of what Americans believe about themselves, so I urge the reader who comes across a difficult fact to read on, to absorb all the contradictions of these lives into a larger insight. We need to get beyond partisan politics if we are to make headway against the problem.

It may seem odd to examine poverty by looking at those who live barely beneath or a little above the federal government’s official poverty line, as most of these families do. They dwell in a border zone that defies ready definition. But that makes them significant, for as they attempt to escape, we see vividly the obstacles they have to cross. From the edge of poverty, we have an illuminating view of poverty’s depths.

“Poverty” is an unsatisfying term, for poverty is not a category that can be delineated merely by the government’s dollar limits on annual income. In real life, it is an unmarked area along a continuum, a broader region of hardship than the society usually recognizes. More people than those officially designated as “poor” are, in fact, weighed down with the troubles
associated with poverty. Therefore, I use “poor” not as a statistician would. I use it as imprecisely as it should be used, to suggest the lowest stratum of economic attainment, with all of its accompanying problems.

No discussion of the working poor is adequate without a discussion of their employers, so they also appear in these pages—entrepreneurs and managers who profit from cheap labor or who struggle to keep their businesses alive. In addition, this journey encounters teachers, physicians, and other professionals who try to make a difference.

Although I have not sought to be demographically representative, most of the working poor in this book are women, as are most of them in the country at large. Unmarried with children, they are frequently burdened with low incomes and high needs among the youngsters they raise. A majority of those I write about are American citizens, but some are immigrants, both legal and illegal, whose labor is essential to the country’s growth and comfort.

The people here are white and black, Asian and Hispanic. Poverty in America knows no ethnic or racial boundaries. African-Americans run up against special handicaps in the inferior public schools most of them attend, the decayed neighborhoods where many live, the stereotyping and racial discrimination they still suffer, especially as they try to move out of the ranks of manual labor into supervisory positions. The legacy of slavery has not yet dissipated, and America’s long history of racial bigotry has still left blacks seriously overrepresented among Americans of low income. Yet poverty also contains universal hardships that afflict people of all races. Whites at the bottom of the working world are impeded by many, though not all, of the handicaps that blacks endure. Therefore, having written about black-white divides in my last book,
A Country of Strangers,
I now shift perspectives to the dynamics of poverty that are broadly shared across racial lines.

There are no composite characters in this book; I reject that device absolutely. Every person is real. Where someone has asked not to be named, I have used a first name alone, placed a pseudonym in quotation marks upon first reference, or used a randomly chosen first initial.

Among those who can be named, I have many people to thank. My wife, Debby, applied her skills as a teacher and social worker to open my eyes to intricate issues of schooling and parenting, and she applied her pencil
deftly to the manuscript. She enriched my reporting by helping me understand the stories I was bringing home, and she pushed me to think and rethink what I was seeing. Two of my children, Laura and Michael, both graceful writers and keen observers, significantly improved the manuscript with their suggestions. It is a much better book because of them. My oldest, Jonathan, read it in its polished form and made helpful observations.

Many people assisted me with many hours of their time. Among those unmentioned or given insufficient gratitude in the text are David Allison, a friend and former New Hampshire legislator who introduced me to anti-poverty workers there and made suggestions on the manuscript; Rebecca Gentes, Nancy Szeto, and Bob Olcott, who reach out to help the poor in New England; Roy Hong and Victor Narro, who head effective organizations to assist Korean and Latino workers in Los Angeles; my cousin Maria Wojciechowski, a fashion designer and manufacturer, who opened doors and enlightened me on the economics of the business; Monique Davis, Lourdes Castro, and Richard Caines of Jobs Plus in Los Angeles; the Reverend Richard Corbin of First Rock Baptist Church in Washington; James Beckwith, director of SOME’s Center for Employment Training; Rufus Felder and Brenda Hicks, who provided keen insights into poverty in the nation’s capital; Joshua Sharfstein, a brilliant, committed young pediatrician who commented on the manuscript and opened the way to the Boston Medical Center’s clinics and research staff; Drs. Deborah Frank and Barry Zuckerman at the Boston Medical Center; Maureen M. Black, director of the Growth and Nutrition Clinic in Baltimore; Gwen B. Brown of the University of Delaware; Nancy Rice, director of day care at Akron’s YWCA; Mary LaPorte, head of Cleveland’s Center for Employment Training; Brent Schondelmeyer of Kansas City’s Local Investment Commission; Anthony Marano and Theodore Hinton, perceptive school principals in Akron and Washington, D.C., respectively; and Julia Song, who interpreted for Koreans whom I interviewed in Los Angeles.

My agent, Esther Newberg, eagerly encouraged me in this project from the outset, and my editor, Jonathan Segal, welcomed the result with enthusiasm and sound advice. I am most grateful to both of them.

If this were a collection of short stories, they could be said to have character and sometimes plot, even family tragedy and lonely heroism. But there is no climax, and no tale ends. Lives continue unresolved.


JULY 2003

BOOK: The Working Poor
6.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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